The Oakland A's are streaking towards October

ByTim Keown ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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BY THE TIME he neared second base, Oakland shortstop Marcus Semien sensed something was off. The vibe in Minute Maid Park was weirdly uncomfortable. It's not like he expected an ovation in Houston, but this was like jogging through a crypt. What happened? Did everyone disappear? He was feeling pretty good about the home run he'd just hit off Gerrit Cole, but the silence that followed was unlike anything he could remember. It was enough to make a guy feel self-conscious.

Semien's homer came in the second inning of the first game of a three-game series in the last week of August. The A's had already crafted a nice little season for themselves, and they'd long ago detected a whiff of disbelief from the outside world. Usually that doubt was voiced: questions that presumed the A's were as surprised by their success as everyone else; suggestions that even a 70-game hot streak could be a ruse; expert analysis that warned against the folly of trusting a team with almost no starting pitching.

The disbelief, however, had never been this quiet.

The Astros came into the game with five straight wins. One of their star pitchers was on the mound. The A's were a day removed from disabling one starting pitcher, Sean Manaea, and a day away from disabling another, Brett Anderson. The crowd at Minute Maid Park, where cargo shorts and tall beers are always the order of the day, was ready for its champions to send a message: Nice story you got there, A's. Too bad it's over.

And then Cole threw, and Semien connected, and the world seemed to stop as he rounded the bases. The Astros won the game, but that doesn't diminish the moment. Oakland's entire season was embedded in that silence. It was the silence of the muted skeptic, an I-can't-even silence that carried a message that hit like a sleeper wave: These guys -- whoever the hell they are -- aren't going away.

OAKLAND OCCUPIES A particular niche in the big leagues. It is both a wasteland and a place of infinite promise. Those with modest price tags are welcome in baseball's vast concrete laboratory: the ones with quirky, undiscovered skill sets; the ones seeking their first chance; the ones convinced they deserve one more last chance. It is a place of auspicious beginnings, unlikely rebirths and ruinous endings. Careers incubate here, only to reach full plumage elsewhere. Careers are revived here, their vitals stabilizing just long enough to be shipped off for the younger and cheaper. Careers die here too; it is often the place that provides the final one-year contract that determines, once and for all, that you're done.

It's why 13-team veteran starter Edwin Jackson can be rediscovered and rookie outfielder Ramon Laureano can sprout whole from nowhere to roam the earth and catch the uncatchable. It's why 25-year-old third baseman Matt Chapman can be free to flourish without the constraints imposed by a typical pay-your-dues big league clubhouse. And it's why the starting catcher, Jonathan Lucroy, can be out of work well into March and sign with the A's with one thought: If I play decent, they'll trade me to a contender.

But the unexpected happened along the way. The A's, last-place finishers in the American League West the past three seasons, became the contender. In mid-May, after a four-game road sweep of the Blue Jays, a different thought crept into Lucroy's mind: Hey -- we might have a shot here.

After embedding with the A's for 13 games -- six in Oakland, four in Minnesota and three in Houston -- in a search for the soul of baseball's unlikeliest contender, I discovered that this much is unequivocal: They are without doubt the most earnest, well-mannered team I've ever encountered. They even pick up after themselves, and big league baseball players never pick up after themselves. Leaving a mess -- at your locker, in the dugout, in the middle of the clubhouse floor -- is one of the prime perks of being a big leaguer. Someone is always there to clean your shoes and sweep up your seeds and throw your dirty sliding shorts into the basket and launder them in time for tomorrow's game. But within a span of 10 minutes in the visitors clubhouse in Minnesota, I watch: 1) Semien accidentally knock over a cup filled with Sharpies on a clubhouse table and immediately put it back together better than he found it; and 2) Stephen Piscotty miss the garbage can with a food wrapper and follow his shot like there was money riding on it.

Maybe they just don't view themselves as nobility. Oakland had the third-lowest payroll in baseball, nearly $60 million below the league average and less than half of each of the only three teams in baseball (Red Sox, Yankees, Astros) with a better record than them. The players' parking lot in Oakland is populated by far more pickup trucks -- nice trucks, but trucks -- than exotic sports cars. The A's are paying far less to win games than other teams are to intentionally lose them. It's almost like a magic trick.

And I write this in the kindest way possible: The A's excel at the most unappealing forms of good baseball. They put together patient (some might say tortured) but successful at-bats, averaging more pitches per plate appearance than all but four teams in baseball, and they absolutely own the pitching change. (To be fair, they also hit an inordinate number of homers.) The formula works. They were 11 games in back of the Astros on June 15 before winning 40 of 54 to become the best -- and most overlooked -- story in baseball. But through July and into August, it still seemed fragile, temporary. There are commitment issues, the A's believe, from the national media and local fans and pretty much every precinct but the one that matters: the team itself.

"I don't think about whether we're getting the attention we deserve," A's manager Bob Melvin says. "That's noise I don't need. I go home and turn on the Food Network."

And win after win, they bite their tongues and shake their heads as they face every form of the same question: How is this happening?

Their reaction -- polite, mannered disgust -- is understandable. And perfectly justifiable. Still.

How is this happening?

BOTTOM OF THEfourth on an otherwise forgettable Saturday night in Minneapolis, and suddenly Twins third baseman Miguel Sano deposits a poorly placed Mike Fiers fastball in the top deck far above left field, a location rarely reached at Target Field, an (under)estimated 460 feet from its origin.

It was majestic and the type of shot that can stay with a pitcher. Fiers stares at the spot as he walks off the mound after the inning -- and smiles and stretches his neck in a whiplash sort of way. He ducks into the visitors dugout, laughing, apparently amazed at the audacity a ball must possess to travel that far.

But we need to stop here, at the moment Fiers hits the floor of the dugout. Some context is in order. How'd ya hold that? is a popular saying among A's pitchers, having emigrated from San Diego with former Padre Ryan Buchter. It's typical baseball goofiness, a commentary on the weird obsession some pitchers have with pitch grips. Proper usage calls for the question to be asked in cases of extreme wildness. A ball bounces 3 feet in front of the plate and skips past the catcher? How'd ya hold that?A fastball one-hops the backstop? How'd ya hold that? A pickoff throw rattles down the right-field line? How'd ya hold that?

As Fiers heads down the stairs, someone asks, "How'd ya hold that?"

Informed of this development the next day, Buchter winces.

"Someone used it then?" he asks. He contorts his face and dramatically rubs a sad little mustache that will be gone in two days. "Boy, I don't know about that." There is another thick pause. He is actually thinking through this, as if he is a judge asked to rule on an arcane and confusing law. He is a man who, to this point in the season, has pitched 28 1/3 innings of his team's 1,188. So to be fair, he has a lot of free time. He is told Fiers thought it was funny -- does that factor into his judgment? He looks to the man sitting at the next locker. Lou Trivino shrugs; he is a rookie and will not be issuing an opinion. Buchter, stalling, says he wants to make it clear he wasn't the one who broke protocol. "It wasn't me," he says. "I was out in the bullpen, watching that ball go over my head. I was saying, 'I didn't think that ball was gonna get out.'"

Trivino groans -- isn't that worse than How'd ya hold that? --and Buchter rocks back in his chair, satisfied that he has managed to uphold his status as the team's irreverent comedian.

"Look, first let me say I don't know if it should have been used in that instance," he says. "But I love that someone said that. I need more of that in my life. If you're on the field and can enjoy a laugh, you're doing the right thing. Look at us: We're winning and we're playing good baseball. Maybe we can look back someday and say, 'Back in 2018, I had the best time of my life.'"

AGAINST THE ASTROS, two days after Semien's weirdly silent home run trot, Chapman leaped to catch a soft liner on the edge of the left-field grass. His body was angled at about 30 degrees, and the ball appeared to be 5 feet past him and 3 feet over his head when he caught it. The catch seemed impossible by several available metrics: anatomic, geometric, sabermetric. I asked Melvin afterward if he thought his third baseman had a chance when it left the bat. He looked at me like I'd asked him if he was surprised his pitchers can reach home plate from the mound. "That play?" he says. "Oh, man -- stick around. That was nothing."

The next day Lucroy sat in the dugout and asked me if I'd seen a play Chapman made earlier in the year on a ball hit by Yangervis Solarte of the Blue Jays. He tried to describe it and then gave up; he felt he wasn't doing it justice, so he pulled out his phone and called it up. Positioned near shortstop because of the shift, Chapman ranged far to his right to field a chopper and throw to first with -- I swear to you -- his chest parallel to the third-base line. He was running directly toward the third-base dugout and managed to field the ball and make a skeletally improbable throw in time to get Solarte.

Lucroy plays it twice -- "Ridiculous," he says the second time -- and promises he could find three or four more that are equally implausible. "I played with [Nolan] Arenado and [Adrian] Beltre," he says, "and Matt's doing stuff I've never seen before. He's in a league of his own right now."

Chapman is a children's-book version of a baseball player. He plays with a barely controlled fury, as if every game is a battle fought on top of his soul. In a game against the Twins, with one out and Khris Davis at the plate, he broke for home and barreled in headfirst on a wild pitch that barely skipped past the catcher. He popped up safe and uninjured, but still. The A's walk a fine line: Should they suggest he pick his spots -- like maybe don't play every inning like the devil is waiting offstage drumming his fingers on a table -- or let him go for fear of harnessing what makes him unique?

They're not the first to face that question. Chapman's dad once pulled him out of a Little League game because he cried on the mound. "I was throwing a no-hitter and gave up a hit to one of my friends," he says. "I cared so much, I'd get emotional. My dad didn't want me to have a bad attitude. If I cried, it meant I was being selfish."

Before a game in Chapman's freshman year at Cal State Fullerton, Titans coach Rick Vanderhook wrote an S under Chapman's right eye with eyeblack and a C under his left. The letters stood for "Soft County," a designation Vanderhook bestows upon players on his team who come from South Orange County, commonly called South County. South County kids, in Vanderhook's estimation, anyway, are soft because they're wealthy and entitled and not genetically invested in the brand of baseball Vanderhook prefers. Thus, Soft County. Chapman knew playing for Vanderhook could be a challenge ("Not for everyone," Chapman says), but he didn't sign up for this. He's obedient and reverent-"My dad was always on me about having manners and respecting adults," he says-but for once he could feel the defiance building up inside him. He didn't want to be publicly scorned. He didn't want to wear this man's idea of him on his face. He went into the clubhouse and took them off. The S -- gone. The C -- gone. He told Vanderhook he didn't want to play with those letters on his face.

"Then you aren't playing today," the coach said.

Chapman stood there, a freshman in college, faced with a choice: defy the man who controls the most important aspect of his life, or accept the degradation and prove those letters wrong.

"I couldn't let my teammates down," Chapman says, and so he stood there silently, face reddening and anger building, and allowed Vanderhook to reapply the eyeblack. He went 4-for-4 and scored the winning run. He was never told to wear those letters again.

Vanderhook brushes past the Soft County story but says, "I rode him pretty good. I didn't want him to get happy because he was really good. I had plenty of laid-back guys. Matt had fire."

Chapman and Vanderhook are still in contact. Says Chapman, "I hope that story doesn't get him in trouble, because he helped make me who I am." Vanderhook, after all, commemorated Chapman's signing with the A's after three years at Fullerton by bestowing upon him a cherished compliment:

"You're the toughest player ever to come out of Soft County."

DESIGNATED HITTER Khris Davis has a habit of wearing his seldom-used outfielder's glove on his head like a crown when he walks through the clubhouse on his way to batting practice. His slightly off-center sense of humor endears him to teammates, and over the course of two weeks, several players describe Davis' philosophy toward life as "chill and hit bombs."

And, really, whose isn't?

Davis is the rare right-handed power hitter who hits many of those bombs -- he has at least 40 homers for three straight seasons -- to right field like a left-handed power hitter. He swings hard enough to make the batter's box bounce, and he's as likely to shorten his swing with two strikes as he is to walk up there without a bat. He's also the perfect Oakland ballplayer: He's largely overlooked and couldn't care less.

On a dreary Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis, with batting practice canceled by a sky the color of steel wool, Matt Olson stands in the clubhouse practicing his swing using one of Davis' bats. He's standing in front of Davis' locker, holding the bat the way he does when he's hitting: awkwardly, straight out in front of him, like he's struggling to read the label without his glasses. No doubt, if a Little Leaguer stood at the plate like Olson -- who had 25 homers through Sept. 10 in his first full season -- his coach would stop everything and say, "No, no, no. Here -- let me show you how to hold a bat."

Davis walks up behind Olson and stops.

"What are you doing with my bat?" he asks, all indignation and fake umbrage.

Olson turns quickly -- he's caught.

"Put down my bat," Davis says. Olson keeps smiling and keeps holding the bat out there like he's steadying a fence post 'til the concrete hardens.

Davis has a question:

"If I was Derek Jeter, would you be messing with my bat?"

Olson thinks for a second, not sure what any of that means or why Derek Jeter has entered this conversation. He has no answer, so he hands the bat to Davis, who laughs and says, with the finality of someone who has proved something important, "That's what I thought."

And with that, he walks away with the bat and heads for the indoor cage, presumably to chill and hit bombs, maybe both at the same time.

IT'S EASY TOfind Bob Melvin; he's the one standing on the top step of the Coliseum's open-faced dugout, arms folded, rocking from heel to toe as if perpetually fighting the urge to head out to the mound and summon another one of his relievers.

At some point in late July, somewhere between the trade for Jeurys Familia and the one for Fernando Rodney, Billy Beane started collecting relievers. Familia begat Shawn Kelley, who begat Rodney, who begat Cory Gearrin. It's an eccentric collection -- more expensive than salt and pepper shakers, more practical than antique silver -- but you never know how many you might need, or whether a guy's going to slice his thumb doing the dishes and miss a week, like Kelley did the first week in September.

There was a time when shortening a game meant having two guys at the back end of the bullpen who could handle the eighth and ninth. The A's have another idea: get a lead after five -- or, hell, four -- and force the other team to deal with a marching band of guys who throw 98.

When it works, as it did in a 6-3 win over the Yankees on Labor Day, it looks like this: five slightly wobbly innings from Trevor Cahill, one inning and three strikeouts from Trivino, a third of an inning from Yusmeiro Petit and two-thirds from Buchter, and three outs each from Familia and Blake Treinen.

The constant, even with the addition of established closers Rodney and Familia, is Treinen for the ninth. Treinen is a legend in the wonky underground pitching community for the clips that show his 99 mph two-seamer cutting and diving like a fish, but his emergence as an All-Star is far more unlikely than his team's presence in the postseason.

He had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in elementary school and was diagnosed as borderline prediabetic in junior high. He was an average high school pitcher who pitched for an NAIA junior varsity team before a series of events -- including the fudging of a radar-gun reading from 82(ish) to 87(ish) -- earned him a spot at South Dakota State. Several other perhaps divinely inspired events later, here he is, throwing 99, striking out nearly 12 per nine, making the All-Star team and dominating at the back end of one of baseball's best bullpens.

"I never thought about quitting, but there were points where I wondered, 'How is this going to be possible?'" he says. "Every door that was closed, God opened another one. I don't know why baseball is my calling, but it is. I shake my head every day -- Why me?"

Treinen is another earnest, borderline-square Athletic whose personality doesn't mesh with the outright violence of his stuff. The emphasis, rightly, is on the near impossibility of hitting against him, but try catching him.

"He's not wild, thank god, but you're never completely sure where it's going," Lucroy says. "My best advice? Tackle it."

PROGNOSTICATION HAS BECOME such an intrinsic part of the sporting experience that it often shrouds reality. We're tethered to expectation and prediction, and anything that refuses to conform is viewed as an aberration. For the 2018 Oakland A's, that means every game is a referendum on their worth.

Take the three-game home series with the Yankees that began on Labor Day, almost certainly a wild-card preview. (The crowd for the second game, by the way, was just 17,500 ... with roughly half of them rooting for New York. "We own that -- I think it's part of our edge," Lucroy says of Oakland's attendance, fourth lowest in baseball. "The fans who do show up are good, but sometimes it sounds like Major League -- remember there was that one guy clapping?") The A's won the first game when the bullpen sequencing worked perfectly. The next night, a "bullpenning" night with Liam Hendriks starting for the second time in four games, became a religious procession of seven more relievers and a 5-1 loss.

Afterward, the clubhouse is as quiet as Semien's trip around the bases. It feels desperate, like the end of something, like maybe those people in Houston just needed to wait a couple of weeks to experience the beginning of the end. The loss feels pivotal, a possible tipping point, maybe even a referendum on their worth.

And then the next night the A's savage Yankees ace Luis Severino, knocking him out after 2 innings. It's day 20 of 20 games without a day off, and the 8-2 win moves the A's to within 3 1/2 games of the Yankees for the top wild-card spot. They win the series. They stay 3 1/2 behind the Astros in the AL West.

How is this happening?

"Nobody believes we're actually for real," Lucroy says. "People think we're flukes. Oakland's not that good. They can't be that good. They can't be for real."

His eyes narrow, and his voice sharpens. His team has won 84 games, which means he and his teammates have faced this same question, this same referendum on their worth, 83 times before.

"Just believe it," Lucroy says, "because we're for real."